Russia and China face criticism for backing 'violent' Syrian regime

Moscow and Beijing seen as protecting strategic interests
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The Independent Online

World leaders and Syria's newly formed opposition movement united to condemn Russia and China yesterday for vetoing an attempt to up the pressure against President Bashar al-Assad if he failed to rein in his violent crackdown on anti-regime protesters.

The rejection of a UN Security Council resolution that threatened sanctions against the Baathist regime late on Tuesday came despite EU nations watering-down a previous draft to try to win Russian and Chinese support. Moscow and Beijing have economic and strategic interests tied up in Syria.

The US and EU have already issued numerous sanctions targeting Baathist leaders. Last month European governments struck an agreement banning imports of Syrian oil – a blow to Damascus, which had sold virtually all of its oil supplies to the EU. Yet the failure to reach a UN consensus will give succour to Mr Assad's regime, which would have been under enormous pressure if Russia and China had decided to rubber stamp the sanctions.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said his country would plough ahead with its own sanctions against the Syrian regime. "Turkey and either some or all of the European Union nations, and who knows which others, will take steps," he said.

Addressing the Conservative Party conference in Manchester yesterday, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said Moscow and Beijing had made the wrong decision. "The decision of Russia and China to veto this resolution and to side with a brutal regime rather than the people of Syria is deeply mistaken," he said.

His French counterpart, Alain Juppe, issued an unusually angry statement which denounced Mr Assad as a "dictator who is massacring" his own people and pledged support for the Syrian opposition. The failure was also met with dismay from activists as well as members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the political opposition movement established this week in a bid to help topple Mr Assad.

"We're disappointed," Molham al-Drobi, a Muslim Brotherhood member who sits on the SNC's secretarial committee, said. "By taking this action [Russia and China] are actually causing more deaths and more bloodshed around the country." An activist called Osama from the Syrian city of Homs told The Independent he was "shocked and disgusted" by Russia and China. "We feel that they are now officially partners in the crime against us," he said.

Moscow has a long-standing strategic relationship with Damascus, its last remaining toehold in the Middle East. The Russian military has a Soviet-era base on Syria's Mediterranean coast, while previous Communist governments propped up the President's father with large loans and also helped develop the country's modern infrastructure.

But Frederic Volpi, a Syria expert from the University of St Andrews, said Tuesday's vote also marked a Russian and Chinese "backlash" in response to Nato's recent campaign in Libya. The Russians and Chinese governments had a good relationship with Colonel Gaddafi," he said. "But the outcome of regime change seems to be that there is a new government which is much more pro-Western and far less likely to do deals with them. If the Libya scenario were to occur in Syria, they would not get anything out of it."

In spite of the failure to reach an agreement at the Security Council, some analysts still believe there are ways to pile pressure on Mr Assad. The Syrian economy is sagging heavily as a result of the crackdown, which human-rights groups say has killed more than 2,700 civilians since March.

Last month, the IMF revised its growth forecast for 2011, saying the economy would shrink by 2 per cent as opposed to the 3 per cent hike predicted in April. Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, said leaders would continue to apply pressure to the Syrian regime.

Contentious UN vetoes

Zimbabwe, 2008

Russia and China vetoed proposed UN sanctions that aimed to penalise President Robert Mugabe over the use of violence against civilians during Zimbabwe's elections in 2008. The resolution, backed by nine other nations including the UK and US, called for an arms embargo, as well as financial and travel restrictions on Mr Mugabe and other regime leaders. The arms embargo would have hit Russian and Chinese weapons exporters.

Israel, 2006

The US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that demanded Israel halt its attacks in Gaza in 2006. The proposal also called for Palestinian militants to release an Israeli soldier who had been kidnapped in Israel earlier that year and ordered that rockets should not be launched at Israel from Gaza. Ten nations had voted in favour. In 2002, the US also blocked a draft resolution that criticised the killing of several UN employees by Israeli forces and the destruction of a World Food Programme warehouse in the West Bank.

Iraq, 2003

France and Russia signalled that they would veto a new resolution sanctioning war in Iraq in 2003, which led the US, UK and Spain to withdraw their draft and go to war without explicit UN backing.